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Near the city of Oaxaca, the ruins of Mitla are one of Mexico's most fascinating and enigmatic sacred places. Archaeological excavations indicate that the site was occupied from as early as 900 BC. Mitla's visible structural remains however, date from between 200 and 900 AD when the Zapotecs were present, from 1000 AD when the Mixtecs took control of the site, and from 1200 AD when the Zapotecs were back in control. The word Mitla is a term from the Nahuatl language meaning 'Place of the Dead', and the earlier Zapotec name of Lyobaa means 'tomb' or 'place of rest'.

Mitla includes five main groups of structures, among which is the 'Hall of Columns' with its entrance to the main sanctuary. It is not known what these structures were called by their builders; the name Hall of Columns comes from the first Spanish explorers who visited the site. The Hall of Columns, 120 by 21 feet in size, has six monolithic columns of volcanic stone which originally supported a roof covering the entire hall. The darkened doorway leads through a narrow passageway to the interior of another enclosure, now roofless, but also covered in ancient times. This chamber is one of the most astonishing artistic artifacts of pre-Columbian America. Its walls are covered with panels of inlaid cut-stone mosaic known as stepped-fret design. The motif of these intricate geometric mosaics are believed to be a stylized representation of the Sky Serpent and therefore a symbol of the pan-regional Mesoamerican deity, Quetzalcoatl. Orthodox archaeologists are mystified regarding the use of this chamber yet an ancient legend says it was used for the final initiation of shamans who had been trained in the healing arts at the school of Mitla. In the Patio of Tombs, adjacent to the Hall of Columns, is a tall stone column known as the Pillar of Death. Legend says that if you hold your arms around this pillar and feel it move, then your death is immanent.

Photo: Sanctuary of Mitla, near Oaxaca

More about Mitla from Sacred Sites.

Written by  Martin Gray.

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